Nicholas McCarthy, the one-handed pianist, stages inspirational concert at Snape
- Credit: Paul Marc Mitchell
Nicholas McCarthy is a remarkable man. He’s an inspirational figure who spends a lot of his time talking to high flying businessmen and to students telling them that they really can achieve whatever they set their minds to.
Nicholas should know because he’s the only one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music. This weekend the Colchester-based musician will take to the stage at the Snape Maltings for his first public performance since February 2020.
“This weekend can’t come quickly enough,” he says, “I am dying to get in front of an audience again. There is something special about performing for people, people who are sharing the same space and experience with you, that a zoom performance can’t quite replicate. So, I am really forward to giving my first concerts in more than a year.”
If being a one-handed professional pianist wasn’t an extraordinary enough achievement, a throw-away comment by Nicholas, in conversation, reveals the fact that he didn’t start playing until the age of 14, which is very late for a professional performer who is usually locked into lessons and playing scales as soon as they can perch themselves on a piano stool.
Nicholas admits that 14 is a late start but he values his ‘normal’ childhood running about with his mates rather than being shut-up indoors practicing for hours on end and running the risk of resenting the hours he would have been away from his friends.
“For me 14 was the right age to start. I discovered the piano for myself and knew that this is what I wanted to do but my music is such a huge part of my life now, that it was good that I had a non-musical start to my childhood.”
Did the fact that he was born without his right hand mean that he was slightly hesitant about starting lessons? “Not at all. At 14, you think you are invincible. You think you can do anything. I was completely captivated.
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“What happened was that I watched a friend play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and was completely blown away – that really did ignite my passion for music and I haven’t looked back. I wanted to play just like that. I went home and told my parents that I wanted to learn piano and they were incredibly supportive.
“I started to learn piano and my teachers basically said that I had natural aptitude and perhaps it should be taken further. I loved it. It was very much my thing – which was fortunate because I spent a very long time at the piano practising. My parents were amazing because I don’t come from a musical background at all.”
Clearly not having a right-hand was a concern about his ambitions to become a professional musician but Nicholas insists that he was always confident he could make it – particularly when the Royal College of Music accepted him to complete his training.
“I have always been quite a headstrong person and very single-minded, so if I want to do something I find a way of doing it. Also, if you are born with a disability, it really doesn’t form part of your psyche. You don’t see it as a problem. It’s just part of who you are.”
Since graduating in 2012, Nicholas has become a champion of the often overlooked but still dynamic world of left-hand alone repertoire – a series of compositions that first started to take shape in the early years of the 19th century but was greatly developed and expanded following the First World War as a result of the many injuries suffered on the battlefields of France.
Austrian-American concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein was responsible for much of the 20th century repertoire following his commissions with Ravel, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten among others.
“I see my role is to shine the light on the left-handed repertoire. There are 3,000 works including 29 piano concertos, so there’s a real wealth of material for left-hand alone and it needs to be heard.”
So, does Nicholas feel the urge to compose? He laughs modestly. “No, I don’t think so. Not yet, at least. I feel much more comfortable arranging conventional works for left-hand piano. I think I will leave the composing to those who are more able than I.”
What Nicholas is good at is communicating, both in person and through music. He enjoys creating a bond with the audience and he does this by making his performances intimate affairs where he shares stories about the composers and the background to the pieces he is playing.
“I like creating a dialogue with the audience – putting the music into some sort of context – sharing stories and generally making everyone feel at home. I love to communicate with people through music.”
Nicholas has had a long time to think about the programme for his first concert after lockdown and it will be a diverse and upbeat affair including works by Bach, Scriabin, Strauss and Bartok.
“I like to take the audience on a musical journey – everything from baroque to romantic to 20th century and right up to date with a new piece from a female composer Julie Cooper which I commissioned last year.
“I like the story telling and the anecdotes because it forms a link with the audience and you don’t know if many people go to a lot of concerts or know much about the music, so it provides a bit of context and hopefully will encourage them to come back again.”
Nicholas McCarthy will be performing at Snape Maltings Concert Hall on Sunday May 23 at 3pm and 7pm. Tickets are available on the Snape Maltings website.